Some hope on religious horizon

There is still a rocky road ahead for dwindling faith groups, survey reveals


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"Religion in Canada isn’t declining nearly as fast as we think.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2015 (2687 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“Religion in Canada isn’t declining nearly as fast as we think.”

That was part of a headline in Maclean’s magazine about a new survey by Angus Reid about religion in Canada.

The survey, done in collaboration with Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, found 30 per cent of Canadians say they embrace religion, compared to 26 per cent who say they reject it. Forty-four per cent are somewhere in between — they could go either way.

Religion in Canada may not be declining as fast as some think, but the number of people who say they are religious is down 15 per cent from 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the number of people who reject it is up 22 per cent since 1971.

As for those who are in the middle — the so-called ambivalents — many haven’t abandoned religion. Eighty-seven per cent continue to identify with a religious tradition, 64 per cent believe in God, 40 per cent say they pray and over 40 per cent say they are open to greater involvement with religious groups — if it was worthwhile.

As for those who reject religion, the pollster notes they are not hostile toward it; it would be better to say they are “bypassing faith.” Overall, the survey also found that over 70 per cent of Canadians believe in a “Supreme Being” and 66 per cent believe in life after death — figures that haven’t changed much since the 1970s.

Summarizing the findings, the pollster observes that increasing secularization is occurring in Canada against a backdrop of persistent spirituality.

What’s behind the slower-than-assumed decline in support for religion in Canada? Immigration, says the pollster.

“One of the keys to understanding the current state of organized religion in Canada is to look at immigration patterns,” the study states, noting that the reason groups such as the United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations are declining is because they no longer get immigrants from Britain and Europe.

As immigration patterns have shifted, so too has growth in different religions, with greater immigration from Asian countries benefiting Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants and other faith groups offsetting decreasing interest and participation from native-born Canadians.

As Bibby put it in the Maclean’s article: “The reality is that groups depending on natural increase are dead in the water. There’s just not enough people being born to offset the number who are dying.”

But even immigration won’t keep up the numbers forever. Said John Stackhouse, a professor at Vancouver’s Regent College: “There aren’t enough immigrant Christians to make up for the vast majority of Canadians who have become less enthusiastic, indifferent or even hostile to Christianity.”

Before the survey came out, I interviewed a couple of observers of the Canadian religious scene about the future of religion in Canada. Their take on the situation confirms what the survey found.

Joel Thiessen, associate professor of sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, and Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, both agreed the future will be challenging for Canadian religious groups.

Secularization, said Thiessen, is “the overarching trend,” coupled with “less affinity by Canadians with religious groups.”

Added Bramadat: “If the statistical patterns continue, and that seems fairly likely, historians will look back on the period in which we now live and characterize it as one of massive upheavals in the ways individuals and the broader public think about and involve themselves in religion.”

As for what this means for the survival of religious groups, Thiessen said people of faith “need a new way of being religious in society.”

This includes doing things to change the perceptions of religion. “Many people have negative perception of religion,” he said. “It is seen as being against things. We need to talk more about the things that are good and beneficial about religion to counter the negative stories.”

For Bramadat, religious groups also need to find new ways to engage their communities, do more interdenominational collaboration and address social-justice issues.

So the good news is that religion in Canada isn’t declining as fast as some might think. The challenging news is that faith groups need to re-think their place in this increasingly secular landscape and prepare themselves for greater challenges in the future.

As Bramadat put it: “Religion in Canada is in the midst of a truly massive, categorical shift. We can’t underestimate the consequences of these changes. The next five to 10 years could be significant ones for Canadian religious groups.”

The full survey can be found at

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